A distinguished group of people, many with a personal interest in polio, gathered at the House of Commons on Tuedsay 6 May 2014 to hear about the progress that Rotary has been making on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
The meeting started with The Hon Virendra Sharma MP announcing the principle achievement being celebrated was the brilliant news that India is now officially certificated as being Polio-Free. The last recorded case in India occured in February 2011, so the country has been free of polio for more than 3 years. Granting the certificate to India meant that the whole of South East Asia is now clear, and Rotary International was given full recognition for its role in this achievement.
Rotarian Bob Scott, Chairman of Rotary International’s Polio Plus Committee gave an update on the worldwide position, and the steps that had been taken around the world from the original pilot programme in the 1970s in the Philippines, through the worldwide launch in 1985 and ended with a restatement of the certificate for South East Asia. In the audience were representatives from India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Indonesia, along with major donors and campaigners.
Next to the microphone was Secretary of State for International Development The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP (and a member of the Rotary Club of Putney), who described how a world without polio was now tantalisingly close. Just five years ago, India accounted for more than half the world’s children contracting polio. The commitment of the UK Government to provide up to £300m over the next 5 years to the project was also confirmed. Between now and the target 2018 End Date, it is estimated that the project will prevent 8 million potential cases of polio that would have occured without Rotary International’s initiative. Not having those cases would provide economic benefits in the order of over £31bn.
Dr Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director General of the World Health Organisation, provided up to date information on Pakistan where 12 immunisation initiatives have taken place so far this year without a single fatality. He had provided this story to the media but it had not been published. He described how the project would never have started if it had not been for Rotary International, and although big supporters had joined when we were winning, they would never have come along without the long term dedication and determination of Rotary International. The estimates of what the project will cost in total is now $10-$15bn, but the payback in the polio countries will be in the order of $50bn, and for the world as a whole in the order of $100bn. We have to continue because it just makes sense to get there.
John Kenny, Chair or the Trustees of the Rotary Foundation reminded those present that although this was a celebration to be remembered, the war was still not yet won. We must copy the determination of the Rotarians in India who did not lose heart but remained united and unflagging in their support.
We then heard from two polio survivors who brought a serious note to the proceedings. Bina Patel had contracted polio in Kenya at the age of two. Also we heard from Arun Patel, a polio victim from the age of one, and today a Rotarian in the Rotary Club of Dagenham. Many survivors are alive today thanks to the care that they received whilst suffering from polio, and they also need the concern and attention of Rotarians. We need to follow Arun’s personal example – he has already raised almost $2m for the charity he started – Polio Children.
In the previous week, a group of 5 Rotary Scholars at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had provided a seminar on Rotary International’s Polio Eradication Project, and they were all present at the House of Commons with some of the other Rotary Scholars in London.
The BBC had featured the project that morning on the Today programme with John Humphrys interviewing Dr Bruce Aylward. Dr Aylward was able to explain that although Afghanistan and Pakistan were listed as polio endemic, the disease is now isolated to one mountainous border region between the two countries. The cure to the problem was travel control – not travel prevention. Allowing travellers to get free immunisations well before they travel between and around the two countries would greatly assist in clearing the disease from both countries.